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Leading article: A trial that will define Turkey

The trials of the alleged coup plotters in Turkey – the second of which started yesterday – could well prove a defining moment in the country's modern history. The 142 defendants in the two cases include retired generals, journalists and academics. All are said to be members of the shadowy Ergenekon network of ultra-nationalists widely believed to have been behind a series of assassinations and disappearances in the last decade and now accused of planning to overthrow the elected government of the Islamist AK Party.

Whether one applauds the move depends on how far you believe that Turkey must break free of its militaristic past to become a modern state or whether you fear the motives of a religiously-based government party intent on overturning the secular basis of Turkey's constitution.

To many, a successful prosecution of these figures would be a triumph of the democratic state against the power of the military. Four governments since 1960 have been overthrown by coups by the armed forces, and for most of the post-war period the generals have exercised a pervasive influence throughout Turkish society through their control of the judiciary.

To others – including some pro-Western liberals – the military, for all their faults, have been the guarantors of the secular constitution as laid down by the founding father of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The object of these trials, they suspect, is to get rid of those opposing the creeping Islamisation of Turkish society. In that sense what we are seeing now is a battle that was bound to happen. Once Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's had been re-elected last year for a further term and been able to put his own man in the crucial post of President of Turkey, he was in a position to take on the armed forces and seems to have decided to do so.

It's a fight that the rest of the world can only look on from the outside, with the hope that the AK Party proves to be far less determined in its religious designs than its opponents believe. For one thing is certain. Turkey has suffered too long from military intervention in its political affairs. If it is to be truly modern, it has to make the division clear and absolute.